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Culture—Theater Review

Surprise Ending makes Powerful
Statement In American Drama,
“Boleros For The Disenchanted”

By Harley Schlanger
June 2009

Boleros For the Disenchanted
American Conservatory Theater
San Francisco
Written by Jose Rivera

Jose Rivera is a playwright, born in Puerto Rico, who is best known for an Academy Award nomination he received for Best Adapted Screenplay for “The Motorcycle Diaries,” a movie about the young, pre-revolutionary Che Guevara. His play, “Boleros for the Disenchanted,” written in 2008, is an autobiographical story about his parents, who met in Puerto Rico in the 1950s, before moving to the Mainland. In its recent staging in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, Robert Beltran played the leading roles.

Production Photos: Kevin Berne
Flora (Lela Loren, second from left) gets the full support of her family (from left, Rachel Ticotin, Michele Vazquez, and Robert Beltran).

“Boleros” is the story of the meaning of life, particularly married life, of how a couple deals with the disappointments of a life which began with such promise, but from which, according to present-day material standards, there is little to show for it. In Act I, we are introduced to the playwright's mother, Flora, as a young girl, battling with her traditional parents, played by Robert Beltran and Rachel Ticotin. The father, who had objected to her first fiance—who is a self-admitted ne'er-do-well—embraces her second choice, Eusebio, a National Guardsman clearly enamored with his daughter, and appears quite pleased by her decision. That is, until the couple announces, on their wedding day, that they will soon leave for America! The dialogue in this first act is largely dominated by the concerns and generational tensions of a family trapped in somewhat desperate circumstances, of poverty, of lack of prospects for the future, of nosy neighbors, and the importance of keeping up appearances in front of those nosy neighbors. It is also about how love can provide courage, and how hope for a better life in America inspired so many Puerto Ricans (as it has so many immigrants from all over the world) to leave the comforts of the known, to pursue their dreams.

Production Photos: Kevin Berne
Forty years later, Older Flora (Rachel Ticotin) and Older Eusebio (Robert Beltran) are still in love.

Act II takes place in a small town in Alabama, thirty-nine years later. The young couple of Act I, who left for America with such great expectations, is now largely confined to a small home, with the dashing young man from Act I, bedridden, his legs amputated due to advanced diabetes. In this Act, Beltran and Ticotin play the old couple, and they are constantly sparring, over concerns with health and money, their dispersed family, but mostly over their cramped quarters. Eusebio expresses frustration over his circumstances, but also his concern for Flora, as she is also trapped by his disability. In discussing their lives with others who visit, a nurse and a young couple from her church, they express their sadness, over a life filled with bittersweet reminiscences, of what might have been, but never happened.

Eusebio, perhaps looking for a way for Flora to escape, tells her of a dream, that he will die on Friday, and how his death will set free her. Though she dismisses this, she is still superstitious enough that she appears genuinely worried about him. When Saturday arrives, and he is still alive, she is relieved. As they banter, he has a stroke. Though he survives, he is able to speak only with great difficulty.

It is here that the play takes a sharp turn, which redefines all that has gone on before in the drama. Flora tells him that the nurse has given her some pills. If we take these, she says—that is, commit suicide—we will both be free. She asks him several times if he wants to do that. As he struggles to answer, the audience runs through its mind the disappointments they have endured, the claustrophobia of the small home—what is there to live for? The weakened Eusebio summons all his strength, and answers, loudly, defiantly, “No, No!” The play ends with Flora climbing into bed with him, hugging him. On the front corner of the stage, they appear as a young couple, peering into the distance, and the curtain comes down.

This was a very powerful, and surprising ending. What could have been an existential story about life and its vicissitudes, and ultimately its lack of meaning, was transformed, by this ending, into a profound comment on the nature of man, that there is an importance to each life, that there is no such thing as a life unworthy to be lived.

Beltran was an especially dynamic force in the play, from his displays of fatherly love, anger and an overwhelming sense of impotence in the face of difficult circumstances in Act I, to the humbled, disabled figure in Act II, who was fighting to maintain his sense of dignity, while dealing with his fear that he had been a great disappointment to his wife. His decisive “No” at the end was jolting, a slap in the face to contemporary audience members, most of whom were probably prepared to accept a joint suicide as a logical ending. Ticotin matched Beltran in sensitivity and intensity, with her moving portrayal of the mother whose hopes were invested in the young Flora, then as the old Flora, still in love with her Eusebio.

With much of the nation as yet unaware that the Obama administration is aggressively pushing a so-called health care reform program modeled explicitly on the Nazi euthansia plan, which led to the brutal extermination of millions, this thought-provoking drama, with its positive ending, provides clarity as to why such a program must be defeated.

While I went to the play out of my appreciation for Robert, I left with a reaffirmation of the power of live theater to stir the deeper emotions of the human soul.

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